For six years, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered the difficulties Fulton County has faced in complying with a federal consent order to improve conditions at the county’s jail. One of the last major renovations calls for the county to replace more than 1,300 locks on cell doors. County commissioners delayed a vote on replacing the locks in November, and earlier this month, it rejected the proposal on a 3-3 vote.
The Fulton County jail will get door locks that work next year, preventing inmates from leaving their cells at will to assault guards and other inmates.
After years of putting off the problem and months of stalling by elected officials, the Fulton County Commission decided Wednesday to go $5 million in debt to replace more than 1,300 substandard locks. The vote puts the county on track to end federal oversight of the Rice Street jail, which has been ongoing for six years and is costing taxpayers more than $140 million.
It could take at least another year for supervision to end, and tens of millions of more dollars might still have to be spent adding bed space to the jail. But the vote moves the county past a political hurdle that held up progress for most of this year.
“It’s a major step in the right direction,” Commission Chairman John Eaves said. “That was a clear outstanding issue that was just glaring in our face.”
Eaves had hoped for the county to be out from under a consent decree by the end of the year, but since May he has struggled to find the four votes needed to fund new locks. Several commissioners said Senior U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob, who issued the consent decree, would never release the county no matter what improvements it made. They also said the locks wouldn’t be a problem if deputies would supervise inmates better.
The chairman thought he had enough support two weeks ago, but Northside Commissioner Tom Lowe, who has said he would have voted for the proposal then, missed the vote when he arrived at that meeting 3 1/2 hours after it began. The proposal failed then on a 3-3 vote.
Not only did Lowe arrive on time for Wednesday’s vote, but Vice Chairwoman Emma Darnell changed her vote, saying the Sheriff’s Office had convinced her that the new locks were needed.
The proposal passed 5-2.
The current locks are so old parts are no longer available. Inmates can easily open doors, even those in maximum security, using soap, toilet paper, pieces of cloth or cardboard.
With inmates roaming free around cellblocks, staff and other inmates — most of them not yet convicted of crimes — are in danger of sexual assault or severe attacks.
Alpharetta resident Kate Boccia has a 22-year-old son who’s been in and out of the Fulton jail during the past year awaiting an armed robbery trial.
It doesn’t sit well with her knowing he’s in a facility that can’t keep inmates in cells.
“As a mother, you definitely worry about your child’s safety,” Boccia said. “Personally, I think it’s ridiculous that it’s taken this long.”
The faulty locks have been a problem for Fulton for well over a decade, with county officials and three different sheriffs’ administrations being warned repeatedly that inmates can get past them.
It’s one of two major issues left that, if corrected, would resolve a long-running federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights on behalf of inmates over dangerous, dirty and overcrowded conditions.
Most of the $140 million that has been spent complying with the consent decree has gone toward extensive renovations and for renting beds in other jails to keep the number of inmates in Fulton’s lockup below a cap Shoob set at 2,500.
Chief Jailer Mark Adger said it will take about four months to install the new locks and six months to a year to satisfy Shoob and the plaintiffs’ attorneys that they work.
After Wednesday’s vote, Eaves said the county will file a request with the court before the end of the year asking to be let out of the order.
The Southern Center for Human Rights and an expert working for Shoob have said oversight shouldn’t end until the county has complied with all the requirements of the consent decree, including replacing all locks and having enough staff working at the lockup all the time.
Adger said the Sheriff’s Office needs to hire 30 to 50 employees to solve the staffing problem. Because of high turnover, nearly every day there are not enough deputies to cover all shifts.
“The obligation of the county is clear,” said Melanie Velez, and attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights. “The detainees of the county jail need to be kept in a safe environment.”